This post is one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. There’s still time to register!
One of the most important, yet often overlooked, relationships within a nonprofit organization is the one between the board and the chief executive. This relationship is very much like a marriage. And, like any marriage, it takes hard work and commitment for it to be healthy and strong.
Because this relationship is much like a marriage, I turned to Dr. Phil for some advice. After being happily married for more than 33 years, Dr. Phil shared some of his thoughts about what makes a marriage work. I’ve been married twice myself, and I can attest to the validity of his suggestions. I’ve also been involved with the nonprofit sector for more than 30 years, and I understand how this advice relates to the nonprofit world. Below is Dr. Phil’s marriage advice, followed by my comments on how these things relate to the board/chief executive relationship:
1) “The quality of a relationship is a function of the extent to which it is built on a solid underlying friendship and meets the needs of the two people involved.” The board and chief executive are more than simply employer and employee. True, this is one role they play, but nonprofits tend to thrive when the relationship is more than that — when there is a mutual friendship; when both parties like and respect each other; when they get along well. When both parties are fulfilled and are receiving a mutual benefit, the relationship will be of a much higher quality, and most likely be more productive.
2) “You get what you give. When you give better, you get better.” A healthy relationship, no matter who it is between, works better when both parties are willing to give something of themselves — their time, their talent, their treasure; sometimes all three. The board/chief Executive relationship is really no different. Invest in it without thought of gain, and you will definitely reap what you sow.
3) “If you put your relationship in a win/lose situation, it will be a lose/lose situation.” There is absolutely no reason for a board and its chief executive to ever create anything but a win/win situation. The relationship always works best when both parties win! Don’t even consider any other option. The way to ensure this happens is to always put the mission of the organization first — over personalities, over finances, over strategies. After all, it’s really why you are part of the nonprofit organization to begin with!
4) “Forget whether you’re right or wrong. The question is: Is what you’re doing working or not working?” So many board/chief executive relationships fail because of pride. When you can take pride out of the equation, the solutions tend to become so much more evident. Concentrate more on whether you are being effective, and leave the right or wrong label hanging on the door knob outside.
5) “There is no right or wrong way to fix a relationship. Find your own way that works. But recognize when it’s not working and be honest when it needs fixing.” I will admit that there are some basic principles that need to be considered when trying to fix a broken board/chief executive relationship — things like trust and communication should always be a part of the conversation. That being said, there are many paths to the same destination. What works for someone else, may not work for you. The important thing is to recognize when things are not going well, then take action to improve them!